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Students and Scientists Unite Around a Beloved Lake

 

Due to high winds on the lake that tend to pick up around noon (known to the locals as chocomil) early morning sampling on the boat is a must (Photo by Sarah Calhoun)
Due to high winds on the lake that tend to pick up around noon (known to the locals as chocomil) early morning sampling on the boat is necessary (Photo by Sarah Calhoun)

 

National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee Sarah Calhoun is learning about the lives of local fishermen, hoping to develop a system to monitor the fishery of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala and help improve detection of potential toxins produced by cyanobacterial blooms. She hopes to help restore the lake to its former health and preserve traditional ecological knowledge through community engagement and partnership with students at la Universidad del Valle.

Guatemalan students, Hugo Villavicencio and Estuardo Bocel, use a van dorn water sampler to collect water from different depths in the water column for later analysis for nutrients and physical properties (photo by Sarah Calhoun)
Guatemalan students, Hugo Villavicencio and Estuardo Bocel, use a van dorn water sampler to collect water from different depths in the water column for later analysis for nutrients and physical properties (photo by Sarah Calhoun)

United for Atitlan

In my prior introduction to this project, I mentioned a group of international and local scientists that came together in April 2010 to conduct a snapshot assessment of the lake.  These aforementioned scientists have continued to collaborate since then, each year bringing in new students and volunteers with the intention of training a future generation of young Guatemalan scientists to carry out monitoring of the lake and communication of results to the local people.  This is the same group of people that helped me develop my current research proposal and continue to support and advise my work here at Lake Atitlan.  During the past two weeks, I spent time in the field with this hardworking crew and I’d like to give them some well-deserved credit and devote this blog to United for Lake Atitlan.

Funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the United for Lake Atitlan project brings together scientists and students from: University of Nevada- Reno (UNR), Universidad del Valle de Guatemala (UVG), Universidad Rafael Landivar (URL), University of California- Davis (UCD), and Desert Research Institute (DRI).  Viable lake management strategies must come from a thorough analysis of the watershed, water quality tests that determine lake health, and an updated database of existing river and lake data that is available to all organizations and scientists working to conserve Lake Atitlan.  These are some of the goals and intentions of United for Lake Atitlan.

My personal interest in United for Atitlan stems from the two and a half years I spent working for Dr. Sudeep Chandra in the Aquatic Ecosystems Analysis Laboratory at UNR, where I developed my proposal for the Young Explorers Grant.  It has been an amazing couple of weeks back in the field with new and old acquaintances.  I have continued to learn about the challenges of using western knowledge and technology in a less developed part of the world.  While the sampling techniques and water quality measurements are the same, new approaches and compromises must be made when sampling in a foreign country.  Most sampling instruments have been brought from the United States so it is crucial to be careful and diligent with everything you have to work with when supplies are scarce and working stations are limited.  Although there is now a limnology lab located at UVG, Atitlan Centro de Estudios, it is difficult and time consuming to transfer samples up the mountain everyday and therefore hotel rooms are turned into mini laboratories.

Alecia Brantley, graduate student at University of Nevada-Reno, uses the hotel patio 'laboratory' to clean and prep soil cores for nutrient sampling (photo by Sarah Calhoun)
Alecia Brantley, graduate student at University of Nevada-Reno, uses the hotel patio ‘laboratory’ to clean and prep soil cores for nutrient sampling (photo by Sarah Calhoun)

 

The dynamic energy of the group was apparent during our early morning sampling trips out on the boat, long walks up the currently calm Rio Quiscab, a visit to the sewage treatment plant, long afternoons of filtering collected water samples for nutrient analysis, and of course the interminable data that takes place long after the sun has set.  Each night ended with a walk down calle Santander, in hopes of finding a quiet restaurant where we could sustain our active minds and continue the intellectual conversations on how to work together, locally and internationally, so that each person contributes towards the recovery of the lake to historical conditions.

I am reminded once again why I have fallen in love with natural and social sciences and the changing environment around us.  I anticipate my upcoming interviews with the fishermen and look forward to including their knowledge and expertise of the changing lake and how they may become more involved in lake management.  Humans are just as dynamic as the environment we live in and we must continue to collaborate and communicate our advancing knowledge of the natural world to ensure the successful conservation of our resources, in this case, the inspirational Lake Atitlan.

Dr. Eliska Rejmankova, from UC Davis, collects sewage from the Santa Catarina treatment plant for nutrient analysis (photo by Sarah Calhoun)
Dr. Eliska Rejmankova, from UC Davis, collects sewage from the Santa Catarina treatment plant for nutrient analysis (photo by Sarah Calhoun)

 

Guatemalan student, Hugo Villavicencio, and Dr. Rene Henery collect data for monitoring of the Rio Quiscab, the largest inflow to Lake Atitlan (Photo by Sarah Calhoun)
Guatemalan student, Hugo Villavicencio, and Dr. Rene Henery collect data for monitoring of the Rio Quiscab, the largest inflow to Lake Atitlan (Photo by Sarah Calhoun)

 

This photo was taken about 1km up the Rio Quiscab from the Atitlan shoreline; you can see from the raised rock bed and fallen tree the type of damage past storm events have caused to the immediate area.  Also raising river waters and force, which flushes nutrients into Lake Atitlan (photo by Sarah Calhoun)
This photo was taken about 1km up the Rio Quiscab from the Atitlan shoreline; you can see from the raised rock bed and fallen tree the type of damage past storm events have caused to the immediate area. Also raising river waters and force, which flushes nutrients into Lake Atitlan (photo by Sarah Calhoun)

Dr. Margaret Dix, from UVG, collects and filters lake water for algae zooplankton composition (photo by Sarah Calhoun)
Dr. Margaret Dix, director of UVG Atitlan Studies, collects and filters lake water for algae zooplankton composition (photo by Sarah Calhoun)

 

NEXT: A First Look at the Daily Life of an Atitlan Fisherman

 

Comments

  1. anne dix
    Accra, Ghana
    March 8, 2013, 8:15 am

    Thank you for your blog. I will be checking it more frequently now! Great way to stay in touch with how things are going back home.

  2. Wende
    Guatemala
    March 7, 2013, 10:44 am

    Wonderful blog entry, Sarah.
    Thanks for mentioning USAID Guatemala, too!

    Have you read David Abram’s work? It occurs to me that you may like it.

    Keep writing!!

  3. Isabel Arriola
    Guatemala
    March 6, 2013, 1:28 pm

    I really enjoy your blog Sarah…. congrats!!!! :)
    I think it was good for you, spending some time with all the scientifics of United for Lake Atitlan. They are great people and they have a lot of knowledge…..